1987: Puerto Real shipyard strike

Striking shipyard workers fight with police, Puerto Real 1987

The history of a large strike of shipyard workers in Spain against closure. An important feature of this strike was not just the high level of militance but the active involvement of the local community and the directly democratic way the struggle was organised.

In 1987, the shipyards in Puerto Real were to be shut down by the governing Thatcherite "Socialist" Party, PSOE. However, a militant strike and solidarity of local people saved the yards and won huge gains for the staff. In this not only did the great determination and ingenuity on the part of the workers bring results, but that of the communities too. Mass assemblies both in the yards and surrounding localities involved workers, their families, neighbours and all supporters. Initiating and maintaining entire communities' involvement in mass assemblies alone was fine achievement.

By all accounts the work of the CNT (Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union) in and around Puerto Real established direct democracy as an inherent part of local political culture and resistance - people deciding for themselves, rejecting control by unaccountable politicians, union officials or 'experts', ensuring control remains in the workplace and locality. Not imposed unchallenged from above, be it by boards of directors or government, local or national.

Since the 1987 strike in the shipyards, other disputes, campaigns and issues have been linked-up - struggles around health, taxation, economic, cultural issues and environment have all been drawn together into activities of resistance.

Rationalisation and resistance
Pepe Gomez, of the CNT's Puerto Real / Cadiz section, was the guest speaker at the "Trade Unionism In Crisis - Building An Anarcho Syndicalist Alternative" dayschool, hosted by the Solidarity Federation in 1993. The following is the text of his speech.

I would like to bring greetings from the Spanish anarcho syndicalist organisation the CNT. I hope that links between British and Spanish workers through this particular conference can be increased.
Today I would like to talk about the rationalisation of the shipyards in Puerto Real in the south-west of Spain and the kind of activities the CNT has been involved in.

First of all I would like to place rationalisation within its context in 1980's and '90's Spain. Rationalisation is a capitalist necessity, something which is in response to a permanent situation of needing to rationalise and change the mode of production. Capital changes its course throughout society and changes its destination in order to increase profits in certain industries, with capital not being fixed but moving around. I'd also like to point out that there is no solution to this ever-increasing process of rationalisation within the capitalist system, but rather we'll propose a revolutionary solution to the problem of rationalisation.

Within this context I'd like to point out that capitalism needs certain instruments to be able to achieve a status quo. Capitalism needs its political parties, it needs its reformist unions, which have become pillars of the capitalist system itself. Reformist unions have been bred by capitalism and the mainstay of the reformist has become one whereby any kind of rebellion or questioning from a working class perspective is essentially neutralised.

I don't think that I need emphasise the failings and the outrageous nature of reformist unions and the political parties, so I'll go on to talk about the specific situation in Puerto Real.

There are two points inherited from a marxist perspective. First of all, marxism separates the political and the economic to try and promote the idea of economic unions, unions that deal purely and simply with economic issues, whereas the political issues are tackled by the political party. Secondly, we are left with the need to struggle against the whole culture that has been built up around delegating activities, around delegating power to others. Anarcho-syndicalism is trying to oppose these negative legacies of marxism, so that people are actually re-educated in order to destroy this culture of dependency and to build up a new kind of culture that is based on activity and action for people, by themselves.

Real revolutionary organisations and real revolutionaries are not necessarily the first and should not be defined by whether they take up guns or weapons to fight against exploitation. What we are really concerned with is building an organisation whereby people can actually properly participate and make decisions on their own two feet. This we see as a much more valid form of direct action than resorting to armed struggle.

I would like to illustrate through slides that through many years of education and struggle, something like fifteen years in Puerto Real, we have managed to form an organisation that is in permanent dialogue. It is an organisation which has provided the possibility of solutions to particular problems which are outside of the parliamentary arena.

The most important thing that I would to point out, is that we managed to create a structure whereby there was a permanent assembly taking place. In other words decisions within this particular conflict were made by those people who were directly involved in the conflict:

Every Thursday of every week, in the towns and villages in the area, we had all-village assemblies where anyone who was connected with the particular issue, whether they were actually workers in the shipyard itself, or women or children or grandparents, could go along to the village assembly and actually vote and take part in the decision-making process of what was going to take place. So we created a structure which was very different from the kind of structure of political parties, where the decisions are made at the top and they filter down. What we managed to do in Puerto Real was make decisions at the base and take them upwards, which is in complete contrast to the ways in which political parties operate.

Anarcho-syndicalism, or as some people prefer, the term revolutionary syndicalism, is nothing unless it has an anarchist base. What we tried to do in Puerto Real is show that the anarcho-syndicalist union is not just an industrial organisation that takes on factory disputes, but rather has a much wider social and political aim. What we have done in Puerto Real so far is attempt to interlink various different disputes, taking on various struggles around education, around the provision of health services, cultural aspects, and we've been struggling against the proposed construction of a new golf course, the privatisation of a cemetery, we've been fighting against various local tax increases. In other words we have been trying to show that the anarcho-syndicalist union is much wider than just focusing on industrial issues.

What we've managed to do is organise a movement which is co-ordinated on an ecological level, in order to struggle against these various projects which are being talked about. We have managed to link together twelve different organisations within the local area that are all interested in fighting these various aspects, whether it's increased taxes or the golf course mentioned earlier, or the privatisation of the cemetery. So again, anarcho-syndicalism in Puerto Real is not just fighting on the industrial level, but has managed to interlink all kinds of disputes of a fairly diverse nature.

We have tried to ensure that this organisation, which is composed of twelve different bodies, is directed by a sense of consensus rather than any organisation imposing their particular ideas on the organisation. So we have tried to establish a system of direct democracy, whereby the organisations can put various points on the agenda and those points will be discussed. There is no central or overall control, or directing group which has the power over the rest, it is very much a federalist and openly democratic organisation.

Direct action and direct democracy
The whole conflict kicked off as a result of people at the shipyard not having work for something like five years. What the government wanted to do was shut them down completely.

At the end of 1987, when the King of Spain was due to visit Puerto Real, the CNT in order to highlight the dispute, decided to block off the main road and only bridge linking Cadiz with Puerto Real - an important and strategic place. What the CNT did was to barricade the road to prevent the King of Spain from coming across.

Every Tuesday was dedicated to acts of sabotage and direct action; telephones were cut off, the whole province was without telephones every Tuesday; Every Thursday we used to concentrate on the assemblies in the villages.

Over a thousand police from different parts of the country came to Puerto Real to try and contain these activities. Accusations were made that a child who was on the way to hospital died because of the CNT barricades, but we always let ambulances through. They were the only vehicles allowed through.

Each Tuesday we occupied the offices in the shipyard from 7am until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. As the shipyard was very large, we were only able to build barricades in certain areas. Every Tuesday as the occupation finished, we had to protect people from the police as they retreated, so comrades were up on one or two of the ships armed with catapults and other things, to defend people as they retreated.

At one point when the barricades were set up on the outskirts of the town, of course they wouldn't let the police in. From the roofs of flats people would throw plant pots, fridges, tables, all old useless stuff at the coaches bringing in police. The railway line was also cut by building barricades and also felling the telegraph poles.

Also on Tuesdays were the assemblies in the shipyards themselves. Any decision that was taken in these assemblies of course was independent of any official union presence or official union ideas.

We managed to get a great deal of support from the rest of the CNT, of course. There were meetings that took place all over the country, from Galicia to Barcelona. There was also economic help which came across. One of the most important things, a key element in the dispute, was that the CNT was particularly strong in Puerto Real itself. So that was where most support came from. Workers who were in different industries and also different unions supported the struggle.
Another important thing was that of the four thousand workers at the shipyard, two thousand of those workers were members of the UGT (socialist union) and Commissiones Obreras (communist union), and in the workers' assemblies the proposals of the CNT, in opposition to the approaches of the other unions, were always carried bypassing completely any suggestions that were made by the other unions. A very important aspect of this particular conflict was that the CNT's proposals were always accepted unanimously.

After about six months of sustained activity, instead of closing they got some work for the shipyards. Eight ships came in to be refitted. That was one of the results of the sustained activity.

Another achievement was a decent early retirement package at 55, where the pension would be linked entirely with the wages of those workers still working - a 100% link, equal to that of those still in work, also linked to any increase in salary achieved over the next nine years up to the age of 64. So that was quite a remarkable achievement.
We also achieved a rotation of people, so that if there was not sufficient work some comrades would work for two months, others would not work for those two months. But everyone would receive 100% of their wage. After two months those people who had been working would come in. So there was rotation of work in accordance with what was available, but everyone received 100% of the wage.

The shipyards are still functioning and there is a lot of work especially from the building of double-hulled ships, ecological ships, from a joint project between Great Britain, France and Spain.

Organising beyond the workplace: community-wide action
What we've tried to do is show people that various different problems are interlinked, such as the golf course, problems over taxes and other things. So what we've tried to do is show that for example ecological problems are not just ecological problems, but have a political and social basis. Over the last eight months we drew together these different forces and organisations for a combined project, and so far it's been very successful. It's really just a question of proposing different methods of struggle to different organisations, and the fact that they've been adopted.

We have also tried to create embryonic structures of direct democracy and participation, rather than the town councillors just making decisions about health and education. All these questions have been discussed in local communities and on estates, so that through a process of pyramid-type democracy (from the ground-up), we've managed to take ideas, questions and problems up from the base to form at the pinnacle a concerted idea of what all the local areas think.

By the Solidarity Federation

Posted By

Steven.
Sep 10 2006 18:26

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